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The coffee company behind Mid-Cambridge’s dwelltime and East Arlington’s Barismo is making big changes, including a move to Somerville, but all in the interest of incremental, sustainable growth that keeps it around and servings its communities for years to come.
“There are just a lot of things going on in our business right now. There’s acquisitions, mergers, venture capital coming into it and everybody’s going crazy,” said Jaime Van Schyndel, the coffee roaster whose beans are brewed not just at dwelltime and Barismo, but at shops owned by others throughout Cambridge and in Somerville and Jamaica Plain.
“I’m literally watching a couple of businesses I’ve known for a while getting bought up by another company that got venture capital. I’ve never seen that in our industry, not since Starbucks did it,” Van Schyndel said, comparing the level of activity with a tech bubble. “It makes me nervous, and that’s why we’re becoming so introspective and maybe overthinking it a little bit. When people start throwing around lots of money without asking questions you have to look at yourself and say, are we doing something wrong?”
Probably not; Barismo and then dwelltime have been local and critical favorites since their 2008 and 2012 launches in equal measure for enhancing neighborhoods and the quality of their pours, with Barismo appearing repeatedly in the pages of The New York Times despite being a six-seat hole in the wall in a Boston suburb some 213 miles from the paper’s offices.
From Arlington to Aeronaut
With the Massachusetts Avenue Corridor Project soon gutting the street outside Barismo to make it more pedestrian friendly, Van Schyndel has decided to continue a slow growth away from its espresso-bar style origins toward having up to 18 seats, some outside, by taking out the space’s two overworked roasters.
Instead, Barismo has moved its roasting to the 12,000-square-foot Aeronaut Brewery building on Tyler Street in Somerville, next to the Brooklyn Boulders climbing and co-working space and the Artisans Asylum nonprofit community craft studio. It’s in a vast hall with a stark modern-industrial feel that fairly reeks of possibilities, with stalls set aside as retail fronts for Something Gud, a farm share, and Somerville Chocolates, which also operates CSA-style, and larger active spaces where Barismo and Aeronaut prepare and brew their respective liquids. Van Schyndel chose to shut down his old roasters, which had been working up to 14 hours a day toward the end of their time in Arlington, in favor of a used, 22-year-old Probat that can roast more beans in a third of the time and has been customized into a gleaming, turquoise showpiece without sacrificing its workhorse simplicity.
Drinkers should notice the change as fresh-crop beans come in from the small farms Barismo works with in Colombia, Costa Rica and Guatemala, but not be hit by jarring changes to the offerings they’re used to enjoying, he said.
Barismo is also hiring a second bicyclist to do a few more days a week of bean delivery. (Van Schyndel calls biking around 300 pounds a day of coffee to local accounts “the best job in the shop.”)
This simultaneous expansion and celebration of the basics presents itself in a couple of other ways, including a recent trip to Guatemala with Simon Yu of Simon’s Coffee Shop and Voltage Coffee & Art’s Lucy R. Valena to see the coffee farms whose product they serve. He also hosted a gathering of about 60 people representing the coffee and cafe community for a conversation about the future of coffee locally and as a first step toward encouraging growth in Somerville.
“I’m finding ways to do some outreach and say thank you to Cambridge, but also try to find a way into Somerville, because Somerville is sort of like the nut we want to crack,” he said. “I want people to know we’re being thoughtful and trying to grow in a reasonable fashion and be sustainable and be part of this community, but we’re still learning what this community is and who it is.”
The goal is complicated by Barismo having no sales representative, because Van Schyndel doesn’t want to become a sales company. “That’s not what we do. We’re Barismo. We spend most of our time trying to refine to the nth degree the processes we’re doing,” he said.
He thinks the Aeronaut space can help forge ties with Somerville cafe owners, and he’ll know soon. Aeronaut Brewing expects to be open to the public this month, with a food vendor and live music to follow, and Barismo could be serving already, Van Schyndel said, save for his wish to keep shaping how exactly it wants to present itself.
Beer geeks, coffee nerds
While customers might be able to soon walk in and buy retail bags of roasted beans, it’s more likely traditional cups of coffee will be available only next door at Brooklyn Boulders and serve mainly the people who work on Tyler Street “rather than people from the neighborhood, because they still go to the Bloc 11s and other places that are fairly close. We’d really like to work with the cafes and have them serving the coffee and say this could be like a training and education space,” he said, noting that Barismo staff have built a stage around the Probat where visitors can watch weekday roasts and ask questions before sampling the results.
Van Schyndel said he thinks of coffee as being essentially the energizer and excuse for people to have conversations and create, with the Barismo space at Aeronaut being unique because it will encourage the conversation specifically about coffee that many customers in Cambridge and Somerville seem eager to have. “We’re going to have a lot of fun with this space,” he said. “We feel very passionate about it and we hope that people will give us a chance and come in and look at it and not be too intimidated.”
Each component of the space has the potential to demystify a product as well as excite customers about fresh, local produce, chocolate, coffee or beer, but Van Schyndel said it is Aeronaut’s plans for beer that seem closest to his own for coffee:
The guys at Aeronaut are trying to drill down and decommodify hops, barley and the ingredients in beer, and it’s such an analogous statement to what we’re trying to do. It’s not about the espresso blend or the roast – we don’t call it ‘Such-and-Such Morning Breakfast Blend’ or ‘I want the Italian Something Roast’ and make up names for things and say arbitrary things that have no value. We’re trying to drill it down to ‘There’s a farm that grows a certain type of coffee, and we think it’s good and here’s why.’ They’re trying to do that with the beer [and] are going to present different hops that are grown in different areas and try to really distill that and make people think about, well, where do hops come from? Then make those available to home brewers. You could have not just a sack of commodity hops that you buy, but rather you could come in and do hop tastings, get as nerdy as you want to. That was what drew us in – that is pretty much exactly what we’re trying to do.
He spoke in more depth about his plans for the Barismo space:
I really want that every day you come in here we’ll be brewing something you can taste. Once the Aeronaut Brewery launches and they’re pouring in here, you’ll be able to come in and five days a week – we may not be here on the weekends, we have a lot of other events we do – taste a coffee of some sort, be it an espresso or cold brew or we’ll set up a little pour-over bar. We’re going to have three of these little carts we’ll roll through and each of them will be a different set-up with a different coffee of the week we’re featuring. Again, we want to have conversations with people, talk, educate.
His views on coffee trends, fads and fundamentals:
I look at those conversations and think as a business we always have to be progressing but we can’t be trendy, we can’t just throw away money. We just spent to have the cold-brew taps at dwelltime … and then there’s a bunch of people who are saying, ‘Oh, you know now we gotta do it like beer gas, we gotta do nitro and put foam on top.’ We don’t. It doesn’t taste that good. But there are people saying that. You get locked into the trend, ‘Oh, we gotta go buy Kalita, we gotta buy Hario, we gotta buy Melitta, everybody goes so quickly and rushes towards it, and it becomes the new thing and then you’ve spent a bunch of money to adapt it, only to switch again. We’re trying to think about where we want to be in this community in five to 10 years, and that means less trendiness and more fundamentals. What is sustainable coffee? What is the sustainable business with sustainable activism, and how do you line those two up? It’s cool to compost and recycle all of your stuff, but if you’re shipping from Portland or Chicago, you’re kind of losing your carbon footprint thing and lose your whole argument.
His philosophy on why big can be bad:
Over the last few years I’ve really been watching the tech community and seeing that boom-and-bust cycle they go through and kept thinking about how maybe we’re in a bubble, and maybe this fancy-coffee thing is not going to pan out. And then I started to be more introspective about it and think about it and say, no, people have been supporting this for six years and we’ve grown a lot – the problem is we almost grow too fast, and if we grow faster than we can handle, we have to go in cycles of growth and reorganization and think about what we want to do next and grow again, because it’s still a small company, locally owned. We have a few investors, but my wife and I still own the majority of the company. We don’t have any venture capital input to, you know, go coast to coast.
So coming up with this model I started to think about where I was 10 years ago, working at Simon’s as manager. I had no leverage over the roaster we worked with because I was too small an account. We would call and say, ‘Hey, the quality of this, how can we improve it?’ but they had big accounts all over the region and we were just kind of an annoyance. And from the roaster perspective, if they buy from a really big farm, the farm doesn’t care. So there’s a little circle there that works if everybody stays within a certain range. You have to be big enough to be sustainable on a farm level. If I can buy a third or up to half of what a farm produces or more, I have real leverage. But if I buy everything they produce it becomes counterproductive, because they don’t have any outlets and basically have to take whatever price I give them. So leave them a little room to have other relationships in case something goes south. Yeah, small cafes buying from small- to midsize roasters buying from small farms is a lot more work, but everybody gets heard in the process.